Sen. Mike Lee says the move to bring earmarks back to Congress is a “step in the wrong direction.”
In late February Democrats in Congress said they were bringing back a version of the controversial practice, which allowed individual members of Congress to direct spending for specific programs. The budgetary mechanism was banned in 2011 after prompting several scandals. Democrats aren’t calling them “earmarks” anymore, ditching that term in favor of “community-project funding.”
Lee, who is part of an effort to permanently ban budgetary earmarks, says bringing back the practice would not be a return to the “glory days” of Congress.
“They were not glory days. They were sad, dreary days that were bad for liberty and bad for the American people,” said Lee during an interview with the right-wing news outlet One America News Network.
Several high-profile scandals in Congress erupted from earmarks, most notably the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that cost more than $200 million. Former California Rep. Duke Cunningham was sentenced to eight years in prison for accepting more than $2 million in bribes in exchange for steering earmarks to defense contractors.
Lee heaped blame on the new Democratic-controlled Congress and White House for the push to revive the practice.
“It’s not terribly surprising that it’s happening now that we have a new majority in charge in the Senate and a new presidential administration,” said Lee.
Senate Republicans have voted to permanently ban earmarks in their internal party rules. Lee says the temptation to abuse the process is simply too great, which is why he favors getting rid of the spending set-asides altogether.
“This is the grease that moves the corrupting gears of Washington,” Lee warned. “People say this is just a small percentage of overall spending. But that’s like saying the engine of a mile-long locomotive is one small piece, but it’s moving the whole train.”
Proponents of restoring the earmark system say it would lead to more deals on legislation, as including a spending earmark in a bill would help get more members on board. But Lee likened that to “legal bribery.”